The American road trip, popularized in books, movies, songs and television for decades, is a hallmark of the country’s unencumbered spirit and has a long, storied history.
“Some city dwellers simply sought an escape. Early 20th century urban environments had their drawbacks,” author Peter J. Blodgett writes in Time Magazine. “Upper-middle-class tourists motored through the countryside and then camped by the side of the road, finding the sentimentalized image of the gypsy or the tramp quite a compelling identity to assume. They reveled in their sense of independence from stodgy summer resorts and the tyranny of inflexible timetables set by railroads or steamship lines. They delighted in the beauty and serenity of unspoiled countryside.”
In 1903, Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson set out with his friend and his bulldog on the first ever recorded transcontinental road trip. With only 150 miles of paved roads throughout the country and a trusty 20-horsepower Winton touring car, it took him 63 days to trek from San Francisco to New York. Today, that same trip would take around two days of nonstop driving.
Once Route 66 was established in 1926, it connected Chicago to the Pacific Coast, offering a flatter, more temperate route for cross-country drivers, and the popularity of the American road trip took off. Though urban environments have significantly improved since the early 20th century, the “go west” mindset is still spurred on by the need to take a breather from oppressive city life. Today, road-trippers are turning the trek into a chance to see the country from coast to coast, making stops at popular tourist sites and national parks along the way.
With 59 official U.S. national parks, there are plenty of gorgeous sights to be seen. One adventurous duo even set out to see every park in one year to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the National Parks Service, documenting it as The Greatest American Road Trip. Not only do parks provide much needed rest stops along the way, they’re beacons of untapped adventure, and they’re attracting major crowds. Last year, park attendance reached an all-time high of 325 million visitors, over 13 million of whom were foreign tourists, proving that the great American road trip appeals internationally as well.
Click through the below slideshow to see famous sights from national parks, photographed by adventure and sports photographer Dan Szpakowski.